Teaching Through Tragedy

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It was the most draining week in teaching I’ve ever experienced. For, it reaffirmed for me that teaching is so much more than a job; it’s life, all encompassing. As teachers, we not only bring our jobs home, we bring who were are and the experiences we’ve had into the classroom to share with our students.

This week (DEC 15-19) marked the deaths of two 2014 alumni: separate incidents, different days. The first, emotionally close to me. The second close in proximity.

It was a Saturday morning in December when my son (also a graduate of the same high school) asked, “Mom, do you know Isabella G.?” Yes, I nodded. My kids ask me all the time if I know people because I seem to know so many after teaching in the town I also live in for thirteen years, now. “She died in a car accident last night.” Initially, shock sets in, as it takes some time to fully comprehend. He fills in the details, from what he knows — the beginning of the abundance of fact blurred with rumor from social media.

I recall, two years ago, finding out in fractured details from the internet, students relaying what was being reported on Twitter and other new sources about the Sandy Hook massacre, for it was the first tragedy of this proportion that I’d experienced hearing about via smart phones. At first, I dismissed it, until later I came home and the details began piecing themselves together. Teaching through the aftermath of Sandy Hook was also difficult. The next morning, there was a faculty meeting, before school, to talk about how we should handle it with the students, what resources are available and such.

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And before that, I was teaching on 9/11, as the unbelievable events unfolded until finally school was cancelled. The next day we’d exercise a day of mourning. There was no social media then, or if there was people didn’t access it so readily from their phones; news came from news stations, not Twitter. No morning faculty meeting to discuss how to deal with the event in the face of our students. Nothing like this had happened before. There was no protocol to follow.

But like the faculty meeting following Sandy Hook when protocol had been established, the same early morning meeting would be held for Isabella (Izzy). For neither, could I hold it together, as I would have liked to. While Sandy Hook was a horrific tragedy, I knew Izzy. My daughter knew her; she  looked up to her as a fellow athlete and friend. This one hit home.

I remembered an email Izzy sent me during her junior year, the year I had her and her friends in American literature. It touched me. It spoke to who she was beneath her tough,  teenage exterior. While in the email, Izzy asked for me to keep it anonymous, I wanted to put it out there ( I put it up on Facebook, my daughter shared it to Twitter) because I thought Izzy’s message was so poignant that I wanted others to be affected by it, as I had been. In fact, I was so moved by it, and other sentiments from students over the span of years, that I referred to it in a blog post I’d earlier written about teaching NOT being just about imparting wisdom, producing intelligent, skilled children, but rather about teaching the whole child, recognizing them as people and giving them the skills to be better people.

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I went to school on this Monday with a lump in my throat. Trying to address something like this, while navigating through my own emotions does not come easy to me. My students have seen me cry. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, I never want my own emotions to impede the messages I try to deliver to them. This, like the day after Sandy Hook, would be one of those days.

The morning started off not so bad. It seemed the kids welcomed the distraction school had to offer as much as I did. Mid-morning, when advisory came, however, a shift occurred. We were directed to give our students the opportunity to make condolence cards for the family; we were provided with the materials to do so. It was an important thing to do. And in the midst of the mayhem of selecting the perfect colors, and shapes, and supplies, I recalled two years before. It wasn’t a directive on that day; in fact, one of the students suggested we make cards for the families of the Sandy Hook tragedy. It may have even been Izzy; it certainly was her class. I took out my art supplies and we did. It was a cathartic way to deal with our grief and sadness, for we wanted to do something and this felt purposeful. A memory, so vivid, that I could see Izzy sitting at her desk with her supplies, laid neatly in front of her, frantically searching on her phone for the most appropriate inspirational quote. She kept reading them aloud. “How does this one sound?” she’d ask.

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That is when I lost it. My students looked frightened almost, not knowing what to do. Their teacher stood before them and just sobbed. I couldn’t articulate what I was thinking or feeling, but I muttered that I was okay. Later, I composed myself and shared the poem, “Remember” by Christina Rosetti, I’d written on the petals of the flower I had cut out because Izzy was referred to as a “Flower Child.” I also wrote a letter to the family, sharing my experience.

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In the next two classes, there were students who had been close friends with Izzy. We reminisced together, cried and hugged too. More students made cards. And, at the end of the day, I felt good. We’d made it through the day.

The next day was better, while pangs of sadness came and went, productivity occurred.

Then, in the afternoon, at home, I heard a bevy of police sirens close by. Minutes later, her phone in hand, my daughter called out, “Someone’s been shot on Cornwall” (the street around the corner from mine). A few minutes later, “Two people have been shot.” It was evident that another neighbor knew who it was from his cryptic messages on Twitter. In less than thirty minutes, my daughter revealed a name, a troubled boy from a troubled family, He’d had a history of drugs, and he, too, graduated from the same class as Izzy. Various reports from news media were revealed in addition to speculation on Twitter and other forms of social media. It wasn’t until midnight did we get the facts, and more would pour in the next day. A email came out from both the superintendent of schools and the principal, also cryptic, for they were not at liberty to identify the victims or reveal the facts, but another faculty meeting would be held first thing in the morning.

I didn’t know this boy, even though his family lived in my neighborhood; I know others who know him and his siblings. His name is Chris, and he was shot and killed by his father, who turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Chris’s sister is a sophomore at the high school. I don’t know her either, but I teach students who do, and I am her class’s adviser.

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On this morning, the lump in my throat was bigger than two days before, for I had difficulty making sense of not only the incident but still hardly adjusting to the news of Izzy’s death. I went to school with a reserve that it would be another one of those days, and it was. A somber mood blanketed the school, evident from the moment I walked in the door to the moment I left.

From the first class to the last, I tried to ease my students’ minds by sharing my own confusion about the week’s events to let them know they were not alone. We discussed the different ways people grieve and being responsible for one’s words and actions out of respect for how others might be feeling. We also talked about the misinformation that was delivered over social media and in the news– a very real fact of their generation, something they could now learn from, firsthand.

Therapy dogs were brought in. They visited classrooms and legitimately brought a smile to anyone’s face who saw them or petted them. The first time I’d seen therapy dogs was in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

Good things do come from tragedies. Lessons learned. New ways to cope. The importance of communication as well our responsibility to be sensitive to it. Coming together as a community. Discovering the processes of grief and healing.  Lessons that, sometimes, take us a while to realize. Mine is this. After 9/11, after Sandy Hook, after this week, too, I’ve recognized the ability to teach my students lessons that can’t be taught from books. I’ve learned that I am a model for them of what it means to be human, and even those not close to the events of this week, can learn something very valuable from our collective experience.

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Listening to the MUSES

MUSES

 

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Greek mythology tells of nine muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne: goddesses who inspire with their talents representing aspects of the arts and sciences.

The dictionary definition includes a brief etymology of the word, but also offers more modern day interpretations.

Muse definition

 

 

 

 

Often, artists (painters, writers, musicians…) tell of the muses whom have inspired them to create

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These are the muses and how I’ve been inspired by them:

Muse astronomy

 

There is nothing more majestic than the night sky. Symbols of it fill my pages of writing. In awe of the galaxy, the moon, the sun, the planets, I observe– me watching them, them watching me. As a student of astronomy and astrology, I study the constellations using aspects of signs in the characters I create. I believe their signs are part of the energy force that moves each character through a piece of writing, allowing him/her to take on a voice, action and thought that surprises even me, the creator.

Muse Love poetry

My first exposure to love poetry was probably during my freshman year of college in a Romantic Poets class studying Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Blake. This lead to the study of Victorian poetry– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Bronte & Christina Rossetti. Later, I found Shakespeare’s sonnets and grew to appreciate brilliance of his work.

 

          “Love is not love which alters when its alteration finds

          or bends with the remover to move

          O no, it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on the tempests

          and is never shaken

          It is the star to every wandering bark

          whose worth’s unknown,

          although height be taken”

                                                          William Shakespeare

                                                          Sonnet 116

 

          “When I saw you, I fell in love

          and you smiled because you knew”

                                                          William Shakespeare

                                                          Romeo and Juliet

          “Be with me always

          take any form– drive me mad!

          Only do not leave me in the abyss

          where I cannot find you.

          I cannot live without my life.

              I cannot live without my soul.”

                                                          Emily Bronte

                                                          Wuthering Heights

 And, later still, I found other pieces that inspire. I write them all down– in a notebook, and on a wall in my study, so the words become a part of me.

 

“It’s only with the heart one could see rightly

          What is essential is invisible to the eye”

                                                          Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

                                                          The Little Prince

 

          “You know that place between sleep and awake

          that place where you can still remember dreaming?

          That’s where I’ll always love you.

          That’s where I’ll be waiting.”

J.M. Barrie

                                                The Adventures of Peter Pan

 

Love is the most powerful emotion. How could one write, after all, without love?

 

 

Muses history

If I didn’t pursue some vein (or many) of English in college or life, for that matter, I would have pursued history. It fascinates me. Everything about it. I’m drawn to antiquity. I’m drawn to stories of the past. I’m curious about how the past affects the future. I even get politically charged on occasion and relish a good political debate. History is about what makes people tick–  whole cultures, too.

When I was little, I grew up with two Italian grandparents whose parents immigrated to the U.S. before they were born. If I had to equate them to a modern(ish)-day example, it would be Cher’s character’s family  in Moonstruck.

 

My grandfather served in Guadalcanal during World War II, a great sense of pride for him until his dying day. My grandmother waited for him. Separately, they told me stories about the war and the Great Depression which, I believe, sparked my curiosity about history. Later, I would lose myself in research, digging to find more and more– the personal stories. I event went to Pearl Harbor and interviewed some of the vets there. THIS inspired my first novel– my first history muse.

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Muse TragedyWe all have a tragic story to tell. Some hide it deep within; others share with ease. I’m still grappling with my story. Bits and pieces of it thread through my work– poetry, novels, short works, even some ideas I have for film. But I’m not quite there yet. Sure, I can make sense of some of the pieces. Some of which I represent in my writing better than others. But I’m still trying… with every piece I write I try to discover the triumphs of my tragedies, big and small.

 

Some of the tragedies that have inspired me include, but are in no way limited to…

 

Hamlet, William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all. Hamlet explores the psyche– so many sides of it. It begs us to question ourselves, the choices we make, our own lives.

 

          “What a piece of work is a man!

`        How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!

          In form and moving how express and admirable!

          In action how like an angel in apprehension.

          How like a God!

          The beauty of the world

          The paragon of animals!

          and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?

          Man delights not me”

                                             William Shakespeare,  Hamlet

 

Alex: The Life of  a Child, Frank Deford, a little non-fiction book I happened upon, then later saw a film adaptation of. It’s the story of a courageous little girl, struck with cystic fibrosis, and her loving family in the wake of her loss. Beyond sadness, it’s about the triumph of spirit, much like the fiction novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I am often struck by the strength of those in the face of tragedy, perhaps, because I’ve seen a lot of it, too much.

 

Yet, I hold onto the belief that life is about Yin and Yang– balance. One can’t know extreme joy without having experienced tragedy. One cannot know beauty without knowing the beast. One cannot know peace without fear and love without hate. It is through experiencing the depth of such extreme emotions that, as creative types, we create.

 

Muse dance

 

This is the weakest of my own muses, for I am a dreadful dancer. I try to avoid dancing except in the privacy of my alone time. I wish I were graceful. I wish I had the poise, stamina and talent to move my body to the rhythms of the day.

I do have two very vivid memories of dancing, however, which fill me with joy. One is standing atop of my grandfather’s feet as he taught me how to waltz; he was as good a dancer as he professed. His left hand held my right in a firm grasp, while his right elbow jutted out perpendicular to my ribs as he gently placed his right hand on my back. 1,2,3 and repeat. He told me it’s all about the timing. For the second there were no rules. Just me holding each of my babies, on separate occasions, in my arms, either swaying to the rhythm of soft lullabies or dancing wildly across the floor to upbeat children’s dance music. Their sweet eyes closing as they drifted off to sleep or opening wide, wide as their laughing mouths to mommy being silly.

I try to capture moments, just like these, little snapshots of perfection, in my writing.

 

Muse music

 

Now, music– that is one of my greatest muses. I listen to music of many genres: rock, soft rock, pop, indie, alternative, singer/songwriter, disco, classical, pop(ish) country, some rap. I like music for the melody AND the words. Often, when I find something that I love, I listen to it on repeat too many times for others but never enough for me. Music serves many purposes in my life. It is the basis of fond childhood memories– a time when my whole family saw plays and sung entire soundtracks in unison. I wished I were one of the Von Trapps or the Osmonds or Jacksons. I could sing The Age of Aquarius from the first word on the album to the very last, the same with the Carpenters albums and Jesus Christ Super Star. My mother taught me a love for music.

As I grew older, I learned to love music in different ways. Attending concerts is one of my favorite past times. I’ve seen too many (yet, still not enough) to count: Rod Stewart, Madonna, Carly Simon, Cher, James Taylor, Genesis, Dianna Ross, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Train, The Cars, Chicago, The Police, Third Eye Blind, John Mayer, Maroon 5 and Coldplay (I’m sure there are more…). There is still one band on my “to see” list that I’m dying to see: Aerosmith. Being at a concert, body moving to the music, crowd singing in unison, my blood feels as if it’s boiling, so much adrenaline running through it, and like it’s swaying on an ocean tide at the same time.

While I’m writing, I plug my ear buds in, choose a play list that either my character would be listening to or one that imitates the mood of the scene I’m writing. This is what gets me in the zone. I could write all day like this.

 

Muse Epic Poetry

When I was a T.A. in grad school, my mentor professor had this painting on the wall of her office. Earthy colors and placid. A girl, looking forlorn, dressed in a flowing white gown, halo band wrapped around her hair, sitting in a boat, tapestry draped over the side, floating down a river. She’s looking up, as if to something.

I wanted to know what she is thinking. Where is she going? Is she running to something or away from something? Is she sad or introspective?

I’d learn that the painting, rendered by John William Waterhouse, was of his adaptation of an epic poem entitled “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s about an embowered woman, locked in a tower by a curse, who sees a reflection of a man she instantly falls in love with living in what seems to be a utopia. She can only look upon this man and his surroundings in a mirror, for if she looks directly upon it, the curse will break.

Muses The lady of shalott

Upon reading the poem, my questions became more complex. My understanding altered and intensified. Is living life a reality or a reflection of it? Isn’t everything about our perception, no matter from what the approaching stance? Is it better to live safe and protected or risk everything to venture out into the unknown? Is the unknown always utopian-like? Will it never quite measure up to the way we had imagined it?

Questions like these, prompted from epic works such as “The Lady of Shalott” or “The Canterbury Tales,” “Beowulf,” “Paradise Lost,” “The Divine Comedy,” “The Odyssey,” “The Illiad”… aren’t they just questions of life, the basis of philosophy, psychology & sociology? This is what makes us think. Thinking. Taking action. Interacting. These are what make us human.

All of life is an epic poem. Each of us with a different story to tell. Conflicts to overcome. Tapestries to weave. Unique journeys to take.

Questions. Observations. Experience. These are where the ideas come from.

 

Muse comedy

 

 

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I try to find that line in my writing, the in between, the thing that we all feel but have difficulty encapsulating in words.

We need comedy to deal with life, for without it, we’d buckle under.

 

Comedians that inspire me: Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Dana Carvey, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Dane Cook, Melissa McCarthy… and the one who makes me laugh the most: my son, Tyler.

 

The Yes Man

 

Muse Hymns

 

Listening to hymns, for me is like reading a good ending, one that satisfies all my expectations, to a book I can’t put down.

In all their majesty, hymns fill me with joy, faith, hope, perseverance. They remind me that beyond the struggle there is always something better. We need to live through the struggle to see that, for without it there couldn’t be clarity. Not only do hymns like these, my favorites, inspire me to be a better person, they inspire me to write more authentically.

 

Hallelujah: Jeff Buckley

 

Amazing Grace: Judy Collins

 

The Prayer: Celine Dion & Andrea Bocelli

 

You Raise Me Up: Josh Groban

 

 

muses what inspires

 

Images:

http://www.firstcovers.com/user/1007044/lady+of+shalott.html

 

 

When Lawsuits Make the Country Crumble: When is Too Much, Too Much?

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In the wake of the Sandy Hook Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a place I took the opportunity to visit earlier this week, Irv Pinsky, local lawyer announced his intent, on behalf of a six year-old survivor, to sue the government for 100 million dollars for not having the proper protocols in place to prevent an act such as this from ever happening in the first place.

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As a teacher and mom, living only 30 minutes away from where Adam Lanza unleashed his rage on not only his mom, but 26 innocent victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I cannot help but be deeply saddened, emotionally scarred and, not to mention, my sense of security altered as an observer to this event. After writing letters and making cards with my students the Monday following, an activity that helped us work through our own grief, then responding to the request to make snowflakes, which the Newtown P.T.A. asked for to decorate the new school, I still felt the need to make a pilgrimage to Newtown to pay my respects, certainly, to witness the outpouring of love and sympathy from all around the world. Seeing the town-wide tributes paying homage to the victims and the survivors, one sign stands out to me: green and white, representing the school colors, and it reads “We Are Sandy Hook: We Choose Love.” Obviously, leaving heavy-hearted, I also felt this enormous sense of pride that as a nation, in the face of trauma and terror, we rise above. On that day, I felt overcome by love.

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Sandy Hook Classroom Survivor Played Dead, ABC News

When I heard about the young girl who, at six years-old, had instinct and presence of mind that when the gunman shot up her classroom, she played dead, being the first to emerge, bloodied, from the school on that day, my heart wept for her. I thought about the many years of nightmares, the survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, and therapy that certainly would ensue despite her courageous, where-with-all to survive. There are so many survivors just like she who will be terrorized for many years to come, perhaps for their whole lifetimes.

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Last night, on the local news, Irv Pinsky, a local and vocal lawyer who enjoys the limelight, emerges with an announcement to sue the state for damages. In the news report, Pinsky said this will be the first of many lawsuits to come forward and added that he will be representing many of the victims. The suit filed in the amount of 100 MILLION dollars.

Claim Seeks $100 Million for Child Survivor of Connecticut School ShootingBy Mary Ellen Godin | Reuters

So, my question lies in the ethics of lawsuits as a result of an event such as this. When does providing adequate compensation (in the form of health and mental & emotional wellness, in this case) end and gluttony begin? How does one put a monetary figure on emotional damages? Isn’t this one of the reasons our country is so sue happy in the first place? I am so bothered by this because precedents have long ago been established for compensation for mental and emotional damages.

The bottom line is, who is to blame? Is there any one to blame? Lanza’s family? I’m sure they are just as distraught wondering what they could have done to prevent this, for they, too, have lost their family members. Certainly, Nancy Lanza comes into question– owning the arsenal she did, allowing her son exposure to this arsenal when he was, it would seem, emotionally unstable and cognitively impaired, but Nancy Lanza paid the ultimate price. Are schools to blame for not having armed guards standing at their doorsteps? Are the lenient gun laws to blame? Is the lack of support and interventions for those cognitively challenged to blame?

Did we, in fact, know this would happen again, Mr. Pinsky, as you claim? And if we did, are you suggesting that every single building (movie theater, mall, school, office…) take precautions to prevent this from ever happening again? Is there such thing, in this messed-up world, as full-proof safe-guards? I think not.

I do, however, believe this is a call-to-action to see HOW we can prevent something like this from ever happening again. But, certainly, it’s not something that could have been pointedly predicted or, I have to believe, precautions would have been enacted.

From my perspective, lawsuits should only allow compensation for tangible damages. Like soldiers who goes to war, who are often kids themselves, sure they signed up for it– unlike those innocent little children who lost their innocence way too young– but what they see and experience is unforeseeable. It’s LIFE. It’s unfortunate, and it sucks beyond belief sometimes, but accidents, terror and tragedies happen every day, all around the world. They always have, and, sadly, I believe they always will. I’m sure that grossly abundant lawsuits are not the answer. I’m also sure that lawsuits in excess of anything beyond tangible damages only exacerbates the state our country’s economy is in. It’s just one more example of the narcissism that plagues us that I fear will lead to the crumbling of our country.

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May God bless the survivors and victims’ families of this horrific event. I pray for their healing. 

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Sentiments for Sandy Hook

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I wasn’t looking forward to going to school, today. In particular, I was ambivalent about seeing my 4th period American Literature class because it was with them that I heard the first reports of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

On Friday, just after 9:40 a.m. one of my students said, “Did you hear what happened?” I answered, “No,” and he proceeded to read the news that was coming in from his smart phone. At the time, there was news of a shooting and it was reported that someone had gotten shot in the foot. I thought, Oh, that’s sad, and I went about my teaching. Later, when the principal came over the loud speaker, about 1 p.m., I thought what I’d heard earlier must be much worse than it originally seemed. It wasn’t until my ride home, listening to news on the radio, that I understood the gravity of the event. Then, my husband had the coverage on the television when I arrived home. I’d become glued to it– waiting and waiting for the WHY?

Seeing my students again this morning, I shared with them how my initial response had been a passing thought because I/we/society have become so desensitized to stories like this. And, for that, I feel shame.

After spending the weekend checking in to the news and the television reports, going through my fair share of tissues, I braced myself for this morning. I knew I would cry. And, that’s okay. I’ve cried in front of my students before; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I could not just go into class business as usual; that was out of the question. There is this event that has affected us all, in varying degrees of deeply. Their assignment for the weekend was to finish up The Catcher in the Rye in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, is a troubled teenager wanting to protect all of the innocent children from reality. What better forum for this discussion, I thought. And, so it proved to be.

With not only this class, but all of my classes, we discussed how we’ve been impacted, what we’ve learned so far, we’ve debated religion and the right to bare arms and how the autistic community is/ will be affected by the reports coming out. But above all else, we talked comfortably and freely about what they are thinking and feeling. Brave students shared personal stories. One who was adopted from China shared that she had experienced a mass loss before her adoption and how this event brought all of this back for her. Another admitted she’d had “some problems” of her own, and explained that some people just don’t know how to be happy even when attempts are made to give them the right resources. I thanked them both for being brave. Many of them cried along with me, so I generously supplied tissues. Moreover, I have a student teacher, in his last week of student teaching, I needed to be a role model for him, and at times, he was a role model for me.

We decided to create cards and letters to send to the Sandy HookElementary School which turned out to be a cathartic exercise for them and me. They spoke in small groups while they were drawing or writing which gave me a chance to meander around and speak to them individually. I feel like they became wholly invested in writing a sentiment that was just right. Not only would they be making others feel good by lending their support, but I could tell they felt better in expressing their sentiments.

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When word got out that my classes were making cards to pass on to the victims’ families and the survivors, students who are not even mine stopped by my classroom to ask if they could contribute too. In this time of crisis, people want to do what they can however small to make others feel better.

While it was an emotionally draining day, it was a good day. I am so proud to be surrounded by such thoughtful and compassionate teenagers. Their insights amaze me all the time, but particularly in light of this event. It is an honor to be their teacher.

I’d like to share their work which needs no words to explain.

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Sandy Hook Remembrance